Things are certainly changing in the Northeast Corner Conference and coming off a Sectional title a year ago, Angola is looking to be the biggest beneficiaries of those changes. The Hornets were 21-7 a year ago and came close to a Regional title going toe to toe with Marion, losing by three in overtime after beating New Castle in the morning game.
Last season, especially the postseason run, showcased Angola’s ability to play not only as a threat in the NECC, but outside of it. That run, combined with success of a girls volleyball program this fall that contains a few basketball players has hopes high north of Fort Wayne.
“Hopefully it has just become the way we want things to go at Angola, whether it is girls basketball or volleyball or on the guys side. Just getting kids to believe we can go down to Fort Wayne and compete in Sectionals and become a very competitive group,” said Angola coach Brandon Appleton. “Walking the hallways and knowing we are capable of doing those things is always a plus.”
Angola will return a solid core of four of their top six players and that means a lot for their hopes to become the new queens of the NECC. At the forefront of that will be junior Hanna Knoll, who has quickly become one of the very best players in the area and spent her summer and fall with a wealth of college offers. Knoll led the Hornets with 13.3 points per game while shooting 40 percent from the field. She was a high profile offensive weapon, peaking with 28 points in the Marion loss, but Appleton knows that this season is about Knoll becoming a multi-faceted face of the program.
“She can’t read too many of her press clippings because, although she is a talented kid, I try to remind her frequently that give me enough time I can find a way to stop one person and teaching her how to understand how to make those other players around her better enhances everything that we do,” Appleton said.
“She is going to find a way to put the ball in the basket and get some steals, that is what she is good at. But how she can effect the game on those nights when things aren’t going well, that the ball is not going in the basket the way she wants it to, there is a lot of great things she can still do defensively, passing the basketball, keeping other kids involved.”
Behind Knoll, Lauren Leach (Top 50 Girls Hoops #48) is expected to handle quite a bit more of the offensive load in her sophomore season. Leach is a long forward who did a lot of intangible things for the Hornets last season. Described as a Swiss Army Knife by Appleton for her multiple tools, she averaged 4.4 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.1 steals per game. Appleton expects her versatility and I.Q. to be great assets.
Angola will also return a lot of experience in seniors Janna Fee, four points per game, and Kayla Fenstermaker (Top 50 Girls Hoops #42), 6 points, 3.4 steals per game. Their leadership will be important as Fee works to become a more consistent three point shooting threat and Fenstermaker will again be expected to shoulder a defensive load.
“I don’t know a better defender in this area of the state. She had to guard [Sydney] Freeman every year, chase her all over the floor, she had to guard Carissa Garcia. We always put her on the best kid and she always does great for us,” Appleton said of Fenstermaker. “I think everybody saw last year in Sectionals, she can put the ball in the basket when she has to, but that’s not what she’s here to do. She does all that dirty work us that is not always in the score sheet.”
As far as new faces, there will be three that weren’t seen as much or at all last season on the varsity level. Danielle Dunham, a sophomore, is a quick and hard nosed player that led the junior varsity in scoring last season. Megan Nisun was a bench player on the varsity level last season but is expected to be more active in the guard position while being capable of being physical in that role. Also returning to the team is senior Ally Lorntz, who averaged 7.8 points per game over 27 games as a sophomore but did not play last season.
Their noteworthy experience puts the Hornets at the forefront of the NECC after state contender Central Noble lost their best two players ever. But Appleton knows that life in the conference isn’t just easy all of the sudden.
“Just because Sydney Freeman and Meleah Leatherman aren’t there anymore doesn’t mean its going to be a cakewalk. We’ve gotta come in night in and night out and play up to our abilities and make sure we execute and do the things we want to. I can tell they know the target is on our back,” he said.
So Appleton plans to focus on what he can control and that is playing to the highest level with things that the Hornets have become so well known for in previous seasons, including beating that Central Noble team two years ago in their state title season. Day one of practice, Appleton planned on having a message to strengthen two specific areas.
“Defense and rebounding, if you can’t do those two things you can’t play,” Appleton said. “Everything we do predicates on what we do defensively, how we pressure the basketball and as good as our defense can be, it doesn’t really matter if you can’t get the rebound and secure it.”
The Hornets were a blink away from a Regional title before Marion pulled out some amazing shots late last season. Four pieces back from that means there is a lot of credibility leant towards Angola being the best team in their conference and one capable of beating a lot of other area programs.
Their run and gun style pushes them above many other teams at or near their level.
“We want our kids to run and play and make decisions on the fly,” Appleton said.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
Stepping up to a higher level when you graduated two of your top three players isn’t easy for any program. The pieces are in place, but we will be watching to see how players like Fenstermaker and Fee step into bigger roles number wise and the development of young Leach is maybe the most important thing for them to leap frog some SAC teams this season in the power poll.
NOV. 12 AT BISHOP LUERS
How long will it take to find out how ‘for real’ this team is? Game one is going to be a key component. Originally, Angola was slated to face New Haven to open the season, but in part due to volleyball success, they will have to wait an additional seven days. Opening with the only SAC team on their schedule and good one at that will be an important litmus test.
PLAYER TO WATCH
JANNA FEE, SENIOR
Fee has been a quality shooter for the Hornets, but is expected – as noted above – to have a pretty different overall role this season. Fee is a vocal upperclassman and her leadership will not be shy in its approach.
Great teams have great leaders and Fee kicked off Angola’s practice by taking that lead and being that person. With that leadership will come added confidence too in her shot, another weapon to spread out the floor offensively for Angola.